In 2008, New Orleans built its very first bike lane — a stripe along St. Claude Avenue. Today, the city boasts 87 miles of bikeways with a goal to bring that number past 100 by the end of the year, according to the New Orleans Department of Public Works.
But more bike lanes mean more bikers, and even the greatest infrastructure in the world won't keep cyclists and pedestrians out of harm's way. This year, four cyclists have been killed by motor vehicles in New Orleans, and in February, a 6-year-old was killed in a hit-and-run accident while attempting to cross the street to get to his school bus.
"The Louisiana Public Health Institute released a report that said that Louisiana has basically one of the worst accident death rates in the country," says Rachel Heiligman, executive director of the public transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans. "They went through parish by parish, and you could see that Orleans Parish has a really major problem in creating safe environments."
Fewer than 4 percent of New Orleanians ride bikes to work. That number, from the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey, might not seem high. But even a city like Portland, Oregon — where bike infrastructure is prioritized — only has 6 percent of its commuters biking to work, so New Orleans isn't lagging far behind some of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. And the number of bikers in New Orleans is growing fast; between 2000 and 2013, New Orleans saw a 208.7 percent increase in people biking to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Earlier this year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration unveiled designs for a buffered bike lane — a more protected bike lane than the ones currently implemented in the city — on Baronne Street in the Central Business District, which would stretch from Canal to Calliope streets. The bike advocacy group Bike Easy cheered the initiative, while some businesses on Baronne Street, including the downtown Rouses Market, howled at the prospect of cutting two lanes of auto traffic down to one. A group called Business on Baronne sprang up to fight the initiative, holding a community meeting last month at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Last week, the city announced it would begin a six-month "pilot program" with a dedicated bike lane on Baronne. "We will monitor the impact of this pilot project as the City continues to expand bicycle facilities citywide," Landrieu said in a statement.
Larry Huck is president of the Good Shepherd School, a scholarship-based elementary and middle school at the intersection of Baronne and Perdido streets. He's worried that the inconvenience caused by an increase in traffic would put a dent in the school's enrollment.
"Our parents and the guardians and grandparents of our students have to make sure that their child gets here in the morning and picks them up in the afternoon," Huck says. "The more cumbersome it is to get here, to pick up their child, the more that they'll probably consider, 'Well, I'm not going to send my child to this school.' I have to protect the school."
Most of the students at Good Shepherd are dropped off and picked up by motor vehicles. Huck says none of his students would use the bike lane, and their parents and guardians would most likely end up parking in it if it does come to fruition.
Meanwhile, other schools across the city are installing bike racks courtesy of the Young Leadership Council's Where Y'Rack? campaign with the express purpose of encouraging students to take advantage of the city's burgeoning cycling culture. Last week, four new racks were christened at Success Preparatory Academy on Bienville Street, with New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin assisting in the ribbon-cutting.
Also last week, The New Orleans Advocate reported Allen Yrle, the city's chief traffic engineer, disagreed with the city-commissioned analysis conducted by GCR Inc., a consulting firm that deals with alternative transportation, suggesting the proposed Baronne Street bike lane would have little effect on traffic, particularly during peak hours, when Baronne serves as an arterial feed through the CBD for cars trying to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway.
Yrle made his comments in private emails to Mark Jernigan, the director of the city's Department of Public Works. Those emails were obtained via a public records request; at meetings to discuss the plan, Jernigan never aired Yrle's grievances, though it was made clear that a delay in traffic would be an issue.
The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the project from Gambit, and at the Where Y'Rack? bike rack unveiling (two days before the pilot proposal was announced), Kopplin declined to answer questions about the Baronne Street proposal.
Bike Easy officials are candid when it comes to the prospect of creating delays on Baronne. Naomi Doerner, the group's executive director, says there's already a bad delay at the intersection and that the continuation of the project will depend on the city's prioritizing safe commuting for all roadway users, especially in accordance with the Complete Streets Ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council in 2011. That ordinance says that any resurfacing of a road must include considerations about how it can be made accessible for all users.
Huck has joined a chorus of Baronne Street businesses questioning why a bike lane can't go on another CBD thoroughfare, but Doerner says the city already had other potential streets analyzed before determining Baronne Street was the best place to put it. "Some streets have streetcar tracks on them, so that's kind of an issue for bicyclists," she says. "You don't want to put them on those. You've got some that are on the outskirts, but if the point is to make downtown walkable and bikeable, you're only talking about a few possible streets."
Though Huck says he's sympathetic to the idea that all roadway users should feel safe in the city, he says he sometimes feels bicyclists are more dangerous than cars. When it comes to projected growth in the number of residents downtown, he says he anticipates more cars on the road, not bikes.
"I live right down the street and I walk downtown all the time, and as a pedestrian, I feel safe," he says. "Especially when it comes to automobiles, I feel safe. However, when I'm trying to cross the street, some of the bicyclists follow the rules of the road and some don't. They'll be going the wrong way down a one-way street; they'll be riding on the sidewalk. I've had more close calls with bicyclists than I have with automobiles.
"Their argument is, 'You can't get killed by a bicyclist,'" he adds. "Well, no, I'm not going to get killed by a bicyclist — but should I be in danger of being hit?"
With the promise of even more bikeways, especially a buffered lane like the one proposed for Baronne, Bike Easy and Ride New Orleans are aware of the safety issues that need to be addressed, especially as more and more people choose modes of transportation other than cars. So is District C City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who said in a statement to Gambit that the bottom line for her is the safety of cyclists coming in and going out of the CBD. That's one reason she supports a bike lane in that area.
"Right now it is very dangerous," she says. "I am in favor of a designated lane in the CBD and strongly support all the efforts that have gone into creating a safe bike network throughout the City, ... I believe the (Landrieu) administration, working with the Department of Public Works, has the expertise to do the proper 'due diligence' on this decision."
Cantrell also acknowledged the growth of downtown as a residential neighborhood, and stressed the need for a "comprehensive traffic assessment of the CBD and Warehouse District to meet the needs of the growth and development of this area vital to the health of our city."
Earlier this month, Doerner and Heiligman proposed a plan called Vision Zero to the City Council's Transportation and Airport Committee. Vision Zero is an initiative that began in Sweden in 1997 in an attempt to curb traffic deaths. Similar policies have since been enacted in the U.S.
Vision Zero covers three areas of roadway safety: engineering and planning, enforcement and education. As for the latter, Doerner says other cities have taken measures to make sure residents know how to use the roads. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, teenagers in driver's education classes are required not only to drive, but also walk and take transit in order to get a driver's license — all in an effort to better acquaint young people with the perspectives of various roadway users. Education also means working within the public school system to make sure students and their parents learn about street safety, whether walking to the bus or taking a bike to school. Heiligman says education can go in other directions as well, from educating law enforcement on bicyclists' rights to making sure bus drivers are aware of how many feet to allow when passing cyclists.
Both Heiligman and Doerner point out, though, that Vision Zero is a comprehensive plan that doesn't target cyclists, drivers, transit users or pedestrians individually. The plan seeks to get all roadway users on the same page.
"It's incumbent upon all of us to operate more safely," Heiligman says. "And I think that's what's so great about the Vision Zero approach. It really is multifaceted and brings in everyone on the road. It doesn't prioritize the person traveling by bicycle. The goal is also zero passenger deaths in motorists' vehicles. We have a lot of work to do, and there's no reason we should be pitting a person on a bike against a person in a car. What we need to do is talk to one another and collectively find ways to make our roadways safer."
"Our roads are changing," Doerner says. "They're not what they were. We need to be able to spread that message as we change our streets. We need more outreach about what it means to have safe streets."